11.21.12

How to Avoid a Thanksgiving Food Fight

Politically mixed families face a particular challenge at the holiday dinner table. Michelle Cottle on how to steer clear of conversational land mines—and keep the stuffing from flying.

There you are, gathered with relatives ‘round the Thanksgiving table. Your spouse is carving up the bird, the kids are fidgeting in their dress clothes, your workaholic brother-in-law is glued to his iPhone, Uncle Jimmy is deep into the good scotch, and your mom is chattering on about how she hopes the stuffing didn’t dry out while she was helping your sister make the gravy.

Then it happens. Someone mentions President Obama. Or taxes. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or voter suppression. And suddenly, your dad is ranting about socialism while Aunt Myrtle lectures your sister about the ho-mo-sex-ual agenda. Your brother-in-law stops texting long enough to make some crack about pro-rape Republicans, which sends Uncle Jimmy lunging for the carving knife.

“It has become harder than ever to have a civil conversation. Because we feel so wounded, our ability to handle a perceived attack is decreased. And that’s part of what everybody fears at Thanksgiving: that someone will ‘go off.’”

Such are the risks of spending the holidays with a politically mixed family.

I have a fair amount of experience with this particular brand of domestic drama. For more than a decade my husband and I both worked at a Washington-based liberal political magazine. For more than six decades, my parents have been Deep South, deep red conservatives—as are, for that matter, my sister and her husband. This gives family gatherings a certain frisson of danger under normal circumstances. In the immediate wake of a toxic presidential race? Anything is possible.

By and large, my conflict-allergic mother avoids anything to do with politics, current events, and even my chosen profession. (The fact that I now work for a nonideological media outlet is cold comfort to my parents. For this they sent me to college? Better I should have set me up a meth trailer in the Ozarks.)

My father, by contrast, takes great delight in putting on his Washington-hating, aggrieved-conservative mantle—grumping about how Obama is ruining the country and chuckling about how many guns his even more aggrieved buddies are stockpiling in preparation for the coming meltdown of civilization. He’s just kidding around. I think. But every now and again, I check CNN to make sure no one he knows is organizing an insurrection.

Obviously, ours is not the only clan to dance around such sore spots. Just think of how delicately political chit-chat must be handled at family dinners attended by Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts, an Obama bundler and a top backer of the pro-lesbian super PAC LPAC, and her papa, Joe Ricketts, the conservative billionaire whose Ending Spending super PAC reportedly flirted with the idea of bankrolling a $10 million ad campaign linking Obama to some of the nastier remarks of Jeremiah Wright. And the enduring union of James Carville and Mary Matalin remains one of the Beltway’s great curiosities. 

On some level, such frictions have always been a part of getting together with family. (If you didn’t argue about politics, you argued about religion or sports or the proper way to cook brisket.) Some experts, however, see things growing actively more tense of late, for many of the same reasons that the broader political landscape has become so polarized.  

In terms of our substantive beliefs, the nation has not become radically more divided, clarifies relationship specialist Robert E. Hall, author of the book This Land of Strangers. The big shift, he says, is that “we have exaggerated our differences and joined tribes that celebrate and exaggerate those differences and do battle over them.” As the battle intensifies, notes Hall, so do people’s sense of being wounded.

This bruising tribalism is facilitated by the general fragmentation of our society, fueled by the breakdown of unifying institutions such as churches, civic groups, and big-tent political parties (remember Bowling Alone?), as well as the increasingly niche nature of media. (You must have known this would eventually come around to Fox and MSNBC.) Due to this fragmentation and self-segregation, we have less and less interaction with people who don’t think like us.

“All of that shows up at the turkey table,” says Hall with a sad laugh. And against that backdrop “it has become harder than ever to have a civil conversation. Because we feel so wounded, our ability to handle a perceived attack is decreased. And that’s part of what everybody fears at Thanksgiving: that someone will ‘go off.’”

All of which is a long way of saying that members of politically mixed clans should plan to tread extra lightly this holiday season, with the year’s electoral bloodletting still fresh in the mind. Don’t read aloud from Bill Maher’s Twitter feed. Don’t gush about Glenn Beck’s new line of jeans. Steer clear of cable news—any news really. And, just to be safe, keep Uncle Jimmy away from the scotch—and the knife block.  

Best of luck. See you on the other side.